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Desirable difficulties: The stairs, not the escalator

A metaphor to help us better understanding effort in learning

I was recently listening to Nick Soderstrom on the Mr. Barton Maths podcast and he shared a little nugget of wisdom that I thought I’d pass onto you today.

Nick’s metaphor was that desirable difficulties are like taking the stairs, not the escalator.

To understand this idea, we need to know what desirable difficulties are. Desirable difficulties are learning strategies that students can use to acquire knowledge or skills. They’re called desirable difficulties because they’re hard, but in a good way.

One example is retrieval. Retrieving information from long-term memory is harder than re-reading it, but it’s worth it because the memory gains from retrieval far outweigh those of re-reading (for accurately retrieved knowledge).

Another example is spacing your practice rather than blocking it. Spacing practice out over time is harder than practicing all in one go. It’s both harder logistically (takes planning), but also harder cognitively (we forget in between practice sessions, making each practice session more effortful than if we did all our practice in one go). However, doing so helps us to overcome the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. It’s harder, but it’s better.

So the basic idea of desirable difficulties is that they make learning harder, but in a good way.

I thought that Nick’s metaphor was a perfect one. Stairs (when compared to the escalator), make ascending or descending floors more difficult, but in a good way. They give us more of a workout and this leads to greater overall health, putting us in a better position to scale more stairs, or even mountains in future.

Could you retrieve, space, or take the stairs more often? What else could you or your students be doing that might make life a little harder, but in a good way?

Announcements and Opportunities

Behaviour Management Booster: Webinar + Online Course

New event, the Behaviour Management Booster is a one-hour webinar that I’ll be running with Dr. Mark Dowley on Jan 22nd next year in preparation for the start of classes in 2024. All attendees get both the 1 hour PD, and lifetime access to our online course on Practical Classroom Management which we’re also launching in Jan!

Please also pass this onto anyone who you think would benefit from a little classroom management support to kick off 2024!

Certificate in Coaching Leadership

The Certificate in Coaching Leadership, which I’ll be running next year, continues to grow in popularity, and we have some really phenomenal and motivated educators already signed up. If you’re keen to join some of the most passionate Instructional Coaches around the country, and take part in my first ever year-long course, find out more here.

Other threads to pull on

If you haven’t seen it already, please do check out Ben Jensen’s new report on, Fixing the hole in Australian education: The Australian Curriculum benchmarked against the best.

My podcast with Ben earlier in the year was one of the most popular of 2023. If you enjoyed his discussion on the Australian Curriculum and what it can and should do better, I’m sure you’ll love this report!